Clint Eastwood proves again that he Owns the western genre with this odd tale of land reform insurrection and establishment blowback, in New Mexico of 1906. To direct the script by the great Elmore Leonard, Eastwood brought in the western movie legend John Sturges. But Sturges discovered that collaboration now meant acceding to whatever the star wanted. The beautifully filmed movie falls apart even though Sturges saved the day with an 11th hour stunt action climax.
KL Studio Classics
1972 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 88 min. / Street Date October 27, 2020 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall, John Saxon, Don Stroud, Stella García, James Wainwright, Paul Koslo, Gregory Walcott, Dick Van Patten, Lynne Marta, John Carter, Pepe Hern, Joaquín Martínez, Clint Ritchie, Chuck Hayward.
Cinematography: Bruce Surtees
Film Editor: Ferris Webster
Original Music: Lalo Schifrin
Written by Elmore Leonard
Produced by Sidney Beckerman
Directed by John Sturges
In 1971 the hottest American star on a roll was Clint Eastwood, five years removed from the Italian westerns that made him an international name. I can think of no male star that played his cards better. Clint cashed in with some big pictures, and discovered that his image was indestructible: even the turkey Paint Your Wagon had no ill effect on his popularity. Already set on becoming a director — he’d had his fill of the waste of both Hollywood and Italy — Eastwood learned from the experts he respected and began to formulate his own approach.
Never one to overextend his career credit, Clint made deals that allowed him to trade a western project for directing opportunities. He kept the studios happy with action pictures and Dirty Harry sequels. He loved movies enough to respect good directors. He all but schooled himself with Don Siegel, and later did well with the newcomer Michael Cimino, who had written an action star vehicle perfectly tailored to Eastwood’s screen personality. But Eastwood’s curiosity to work with other directors may have cooled with 1972’s Joe Kidd, directed by the respected John Sturges.
John Sturges had fought his way through the MGM trenches with ‘pragmatic creativity,’ as well as patient diplomatic skills when managing the demanding & cranky Spencer Tracy. Sturges worked in reasonable harmony with the equally difficult Burt Lancaster (twice) and Frank Sinatra (also twice). In the wake of Guild strikes Sturges assembled a dream team of male actors for his The Magnificent Seven, and it was largely his people skills that reassembled some of the same cast for his biggest achievement The Great Escape.
The Hallelujah Trail was the expensive Road Show groaner that put the jinx in John Sturges’ career. His brilliant Hour of the Gun should have rekindled his brand but just didn’t perform. The next five years saw two more big productions that didn’t take off, Ice Station Zebra and Marooned. Joe Kidd may have been the feature that broke Sturges’ desire to direct. He’d been pushed around by Sinatra and Steve McQueen, and been lucky that McQueen’s demands didn’t hurt The Great Escape. But Sturges needed to be the boss, and on this Eastwood western he was anything but.
Joe Kidd began as the screenplay ‘Sinola’ by Elmore Leonard, a popular writer of westerns and crime stories. The source idea was the militant 1960s agitator Reies Lopez Tijerina. Tijerina’s response to the persecution and dispossession of Mexican-Americans in New Mexico culminated in the criminal act of invading a New Mexico courthouse in 1967. Elmore Leonard transposed Tijerina back to 1906, to have him face a similar no-exit problem. Instead of U.S. Marshals, Leonard’s militant is hunted down by a vigilante team hired by a wealthy landowner.
Eastwood was the one to bring in director John Sturges. They nixed Universal’s idea to film on the backlot and took the company to Lone Pine and Inyo County for five weeks. Sinola is actually the same ‘Old Tucson’ set seen in 101 westerns ever since the 1940s — we’d know that prominent hill anywhere. It figures prominently in Sturges’ own Gunfight at the O.K. Corral from back in the 1950s.
Leonard’s story places Clint Eastwood’s rancher Joe Kidd in the middle of a three-way power play. Agitator Luis Chama (John Saxon) invades the Sinola courthouse to force the law to take seriously the Mexican-American land claims based on Spanish land grants. The local sheriff Mitchell (Gregory Walcott) is taken by surprise; Joe happens to be present because he’s being fined for a drunk and disorderly charge. Chama wants to kidnap the judge, but Joe helps His Honor slip away (an event from Tijerina’s actual rap sheet) and shoots one of Chama’s men in self-defense. Into town comes the cattle baron Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall). With his retinue of hired killers, Harlan plans to hunt Chama down like an animal. Joe consents to guide the party only after learning that Chama has raided his own ranch. But he soon regrets his choice. The posse kill indiscriminately and hold Joe as a prisoner. Harlan threatens to execute civilians unless Chama gives himself up. Joe Kidd escapes his captivity but doesn’t exactly change sides…
The show assembles nothing but nasties for Eastwood’s Joe to confront. Harlan apparently forces Helen (Stella García of The Last Movie) to sleep with him, although this is downplayed. Harlan’s killers, include Don Stroud’s punk Lamarr, who is obsessed with his semi-automatic Mauser pistol, and James Wainwright’s Olin Mingo, who prefers to kill long distance with a high-powered rifle with a telescopic sight.
But Luis Chama is just as vicious. He’s not an idealist or an effective activist for the cause of land reform. He kills Joe’s ranch foreman for no good reason. Chama is unmoved when Harlan prepares to execute hostages, and declares that his cause demands that people lose their lives for him. He’s also dismissive and contemptuous with Helen, who repeatedly risks her life for him. With no ‘good’ side for Eastwood’s Joe to support, the story reaches a very modern standoff, the frustrating kind unlikely to be resolved with guns. Eastwood’s movie goes that route anyway, ignoring the interesting issues raised by Elmore Leonard’s first act.
The filming crew for Joe Kidd was a combination of Eastwood and Sturges professionals; editor Ferris Webster essentially left Sturges and became Eastwood’s editor for the rest of the decade. The show has the clean lines and formal look of a John Sturges picture, and gorgeous cinematography from Bruce Surtees, who graduated to DP with Don Siegel and never looked back. The ‘new’ ’70s look dropped the old practice of imposing sound stage lighting setups on the Big Outdoors. Less emphasis is placed on filling every dark area with unmotivated fill light, characters often remain half in shadow. The result is a heightened awareness of time-of-day. We can almost feel the cold temperature, the clarity of the air. So much of the show seems filmed in razor-sharp dawn light, we wonder if the company took the afternoons off.
The Eastwood loyalists on commentaries and interviews state that John Sturges was hung over on the set and not fully invested in the film; Sturges’ biographer Glenn Lovell maintains that Eastwood insisted that things be done his way, usurping any authority Sturges might have had. There’s likely truth to both sides, but character developments in the second half of the movie suggests that Eastwood exerted the same kind of star leverage that Barbra Streisand might yield. Lovell maintains that Eastwood didn’t want to waste time developing John Saxon’s Luis Chama, as it took too much attention away from the Joe Kidd character. In the final film, little attention is given to any other character, not even Robert Duvall’s second-billed villain.
The momentum of Elmore Leonard’s story stalls out up in the hills, when John Saxon’s Chama is unmasked as a phony. He’s no misunderstood idealist and just as much of a sexist pig as Frank Harlan. The final storyline stops making character sense. With Chama’s unprincipled nature revealed, we haven’t a clue as to why he would give himself up to Joe Kidd’s custody. The bloody battle in Sinola only makes sense if we decide that Frank Harlan has gone ’round the bend, but he seems reasonably lucid. Masking the absent story logic is a show-off stunt. Joe plows a steam locomotive through a saloon to provide the film with the kind of action zinger to make memorable an otherwise routine gunfight climax.
But little else in the third act adds up. Robert Duvall performs the nasty rich creep without batting an eye. He’s so kill-crazy that we can’t believe he could own and run so much of New Mexico. Nobody cares a whit about land reform; the issue is off the table. Considering that Chama will likely be blamed for his killings and those of Harlan, the Mexican-American is never going to see the outside of a jail. Why is he suddenly so tame?
Joe is just as much of a pig as Harlan or Chama — as shown by his behavior with Harlan’s mistress Elma (Lynne Marta). He sets up the creep who killed his foreman to take the first bullet, shoots Harlan down like a dog and then just takes his leave. With all the dead bodies and Sinola in ruins, we don’t understand how Joe can just walk away. All that matters is Clint Eastwood’s star-building agenda.
Perhaps Elmore Leonard’s shooting script abandoned the land reform premise in much the same way — we can bet that Clint Eastwood wouldn’t sign on for a story that in any way foregrounded that kind of issue. It’s more likely that Leonard referenced the reality of land theft in the Southwest just for historical context. As for the rich hunting poor troublemakers, there are precedents for that as well, although the standard modus operandi was to harass Mexican-Americans and burn them out of their homes, the kind of behavior that made Reies Tijerina an outlaw. Joe Kidd is left up in the air in every way except as a basic Clint Eastwood star vehicle. Everything but his image remains a loose end.
Although everyone agrees that John Sturges ‘became detached’ from the show and gave in to Eastwood’s direction, biographer Glenn Lovell says that the director was the one to ‘save’ the movie’s action climax. The train gag wasn’t in the script, and Sturges invented it to punch up the ending. But Eastwood and producer Robert Daley later did a re-take to change the final scene to become a more emphatic ‘Clint’ moment. Joe Kidd’s feud with the sheriff comes full circle — he punches him out before riding away, with an additional smart remark to let the popcorn crowd know who is in charge.
The supporting cast doesn’t get that much of a chance to shine, and with the exception of Don Stroud the actors playing the bad guys don’t get to display much originality. I saw Joe Kidd new in Culver City but remembered only two scenes, the train crash and another one scene that elicited audience applause. Riding back to Sinola, Joe, Helen and Luis are shot at. Killer Olin Mingo is high on a distant rock, at least 200 yards away. The surprise for viewers is that Luis’s men are hit by high-powered bullets a second or so before the gunshot is heard. With some elementary physics that had previously eluded movies, Leonard and Sturges bring the western ambush cliché into the 20th century. Death comes from afar, and we feel it before we hear it.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Joe Kidd looks phenomenal. I haven’t seen the earlier Blu-ray, but this is far better than the old DVD. It is one of several new Clint Eastwood reissues that look great packaged as Kino Special Editions: the other two are High Plains Drifter and Two Mules for Sister Sara. All were already out on Blu-ray; the only one claiming a new transfer is Two Mules. That excellent encoding comes with separate discs, for two different versions.
I assume that the 2018 Universal disc of Joe Kidd doesn’t have Kino’s Special Edition extras, which amount to an Alex Cox commentary and an interview with actor Don Stroud. The always-welcome Mr. Cox speaks slowly and leaves some pretty big gaps in his track, but he gives a good overview of the show and his take on the convergence of the Eastwood and Sturges career arcs. In his on-camera talk Don Stroud supports Eastwood’s side a hundred percent, emphasizing that Sturges ‘just wasn’t there’ and ‘wasn’t in charge.’ All that may be true, but I can also see a Hollywood crew gravitating to the power personality with a stronger future as an employer. About the only detail of the shooting Stroud has to offer is an anecdote about a treat Eastwood arranged to lighten up things on the set above Lone Pine, high in the hills in the middle of nowhere. They were hard at work filming when an ice cream truck appeared, playing its public address music as it climbed the dirt road. Ice cream for everybody!
None of this meant as a direct criticism of Eastwood — his record for loyalty to his collaborators is second to none. If Clint found a crew member to be competent and good to work with they were seldom forgotten. My college roommate did development writing for Eastwood for several years. Instead of being discarded, he was paid off with a prime writing opportunity on the final Dirty Harry movie.
Joe Kidd became John Sturges’ second-most successful film at the box office next to The Great Escape. The painful truth is that Clint Eastwood never wanted a director’s movie. All that mattered was to confect moments to bring out Clint’s violent charisma — the casual shotgun killing, the swinging pot in the bell tower escape. That’s why Clint re-shot the finale to let Joe Kidd punch the sheriff in the nose, and end with a laugh.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Audio commentary by director Alex Cox, audio interview with actor Don Stroud, poster and image gallery, TV spot, radio spot, trailer
NEW Audio Interview with Director Jerry London.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: October 20, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson